5000 Mile Project: The Carretera Austral; Can it really be “improved”?

Katharine and David Lowrie

500 miles 300x225 5000 Mile Project: The Carretera Austral; Can it really be improved?We’re Ecologists. Ecologists don’t like roads. Yet here we find ourselves running over 5000 miles all points north along every conceivable road that South America can throw at us.

We started on an ice rink, slipping and sliding over frozen snow through blizzards and hail-storms in southern Patagonia. Then we found gravel, pot-holes, precipitous drops and tortuous hills. We’ve run over 1,100 miles of our 5000mileproject and in a couple of days, we will become the first to have run the infamous Carretera Austral, Chile’s wild “highway”, extending deep into Patagonia’s heart.

So what right do we have to scorn roads? Without them we wouldn’t have succeeded in penetrating into Chile’s jaw-dropping wildernesses, camped by streams in which torrent ducks dive and pumas lap, nor ogled Andean condors metres above our heads.

We scorn them because there are roads and there are roads!! The gravel surface and the sinuous turns of the Carretera Austral provides a natural filter to access and activities permeating this fragile landscape. For over 750 miles, we’ve recorded, sniffed and felt every turn of this serpent of roads. Now, there is change afoot, underfoot! A multimillion dollar plan to “improve” the road.

New concreted stretches of road. And with each straightened, widened, drained section come more cars. More “sleeping” people in their boxes. More beer cans flung from car windows. Slicks of diesel seep into the marshes. The thunder of trucks replaces the thunder of waterfalls. Beret-wearing, horse-back-riding-gauchos make way for the shining four-wheel versions. Pick-ups are the new currency, jostling for first place with cattle. Once barely accessible communities become viable.

But are these settlements really viable, with every exorbitantly priced product lining the shop shelves transported for miles from the north to feed these burgeoning towns? Why is Chile investing so heavily in these far flung settlements? Is it to guard border territory against its neighbouring giant? Or is it in fact part of a grand plan to pave and tame the south to extract resources, following General Pinochet’s lead, the man who first began the construction of the road in 1976? This exploitation of resources is what the people of Patagonia are most concerned about and yet many forget to connect the promised highway with its potential as a destructive force

One of the most stunning stretches of the expedition so far was running over the mountain pass of Quelat National Park, plunging into untouched forest and rugged mountains. The road was beguiling, narrow and gravelly. It moved organically with the landform, rather than imposed. We watched legions of orange Mohican-spiked caterpillars attempting their painfully slow “dash” across the road.

Roads such as these are not part of the plan. Too insignificant, too atypical. Chile appears bound to emulate the global vision of “the highway”. And so we run onto the newly black tarmacked road south of Chaiten. White dashes mark the centre, cats’ eyes demark the lanes for whom, to where, for why?

What is categorically clear from our own research, countless papers and plain common sense is that speed kills. As we humans wrap ourselves in thicker, more durable shells and bomb at faster speeds, wildlife falls. Patagonian Humbolt skunks, Patagonian armadillos, guanacos, Austral blackbirds, just some of the causalities we have counted on the improved sections as we run.

But it’s not just straight forward death. All roads, but fast roads most dramatically lance habitats, slice through territories, watersheds, migration routes. Wildlife doesn’t follow our anthropogenic neatly ruled lines. So populations are divided and foraging grounds reduced. Viability of remote or endangered groups threatened. For highly fragmented and critically endangered species such as the Patagonian huemul deer or Chilote fox, a road can spell the end.

Main roads bristle with invasive species, their seeds carried by cars, trucks, people, domestic animals. Wild rose, pine, lupines, eucalyptus, Japanese knotweed; such names might scent of nostalgia, but in the wrong place, in the wrong country, without a natural predator they rampage. Free to march through Patagonia’s habitats, replacing native plants and impacting the native wildlife dependent on them.

All around the world, people are trying to mitigate the problems of major roads. Underpasses allow frogs, newts and salamanders to slip un-squished to their ancestors’ spawning grounds. Mighty green bridges allow moose and bears to cross highways unscathed. Towering fences attempt to convince the white ghost of a barn owl to fly high, up and over motorways, avoiding the rich but lethal pickings of the road-side verges.

To remove the Carretera Austral is not an option. But do these remotest of regions, settled by a mere 200,000 people really need the grandest of  roads? It’s amazing the reaction we receive when chatting with Chileans, from all parts of this exceedingly long country, about our running the length of the Carretera Austral. A glimmer crosses their eyes, “Que Lindo”, “How Lovely”, they say. So why not maintain this road as a road that’s more a track? For communities and visitors alike who are determined to live and travel in such incredible wildernesses. Where hummingbirds buzz over the tree-tops, foxes slumber by the stream and the wood frog quartet play from deep in the liquid forest.

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  • justiceminister

    Its inevitable that the road will be built. Access to that most intruiging part of the world will be open to all. Not just pony riders and runners. Chile will finally be completed.

  • fwdinsight

    These greens make me sick. They would beat us back into the middle ages. But if they told the truth it would be an advance. We have all heard this The climate’s temperature will increase in twenty years by 10% and the seas will, rise.

    That was said by these people back in 1990’s . Here we are with no evidence of climate change or Global warming. The man who did the science on that said he was mistaken. But there is far too much money and jobs and politicking involved so they ignored him and any one else that comes up with the facts.

    The fact that during the 1700’s we had a mini ice age where the sea froze so did the Thames is and was an inconvenient truth that was taken out of the IPCC report and Al Gores film of that name An Inconvenient Truth. A court case in Britain proved that it was scientifically flawed to the extent is was nearly not allowed into schools.

    This cold occurred even though the ice cores show that Co2 st .0.048% was 23% more than today which is at 0.038% or 380 balloons out of a million. Yet man is only responsible for 12 of those balloons which is 0.0012 of a percent.
    And then there there are the Agriculturalists who confirm along with the Archelogists that plants could do with a lot more CO2 and they will take all they can get. During the most verdant times when the Sahara was covered in vegetation the Co2 levels we elevated.
    YahwehnewsCom .

  • Katharine

    fwdinsight is clearly an anti-climate change spammer who hasn’t read the article, which has nothing to do with the issue.

    Justiceminister: Anyone can travel down Chile’s present gravel road. It is not a barrier to access. If the road is “improved” people will see less wildlife, more industry, more houses, more logging, no wilderness.

  • Paul Coleman

    Greens are actually very good for you. Cabbage, spinach, kale and chard are healthy. Swallowing to many balloons can make you very ill, can inflate your ego and cause verbal flatulence. Balloons have a lot to do with inflation, that’s why the economy is in such a mess and too many balloons lead to all sorts of gasses permeating the atmosphere which leads to clogging of the arteries that lead to the brain….henceforth they cause some people to go off track when others discuss road construction, balloon people digress, wander around deserts and burst forth with scientific facts of strange origin. Articles like these are fantastic, I never knew of the importance of balloons until today and can now understand why the most popular movie in town is not ‘An Incovenient Truth’, but rather a ‘Re-assuring Lie’.

  • Guest

    I am very interested to know how a nation like Chile becomes complete because it paves a road. Please explain the wisdom behind your comment

  • Paul Coleman

    I am very interested to know how a nation like Chile becomes complete because it paves a road. Please explain your comment in more detail.

  • Paul Coleman

    Katharine, i think you’re right. I just read the comment from fwdsight and can see it is just spam. Someone mindlessly trolling the web, most likely for financial gain, posting spam behind the mask of anonymity. Happy trotting with the cowboys and their ponies.

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